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Hugo Chavez presents Simon Bolivar
Book Review by Stephen Martin, September 2009
From his homeland in Venezuela to Bolivia, the country which bears his name, Simon Bolivar is the towering figure in the Latin American fight for independence from the Spanish Empire. Throughout history both progressive and conservative forces have claimed his legacy.
Today the government and movement led by Hugo Chavez has taken up the mantle with the self proclaimed Bolivarian revolution looking to Bolivar as its historical figurehead; claiming to continue and complete the ideas set out by Simon Bolivar in the 19th century. Despite being a figurehead in the wave of popular struggles sweeping the continent, what Bolivar stood for is less well known, especially outside Latin America. This collection of Bolivar's writings, in the Revolutions series by Verso, aims to fill in some of that knowledge.
The fact that Hugo Chavez provides the introduction to this collection highlights the significance that the legacy of Bolivar plays in Venezuelan politics. Hugo Chavez sees himself as leading a political movement that will fulfil Bolivar's dream of a united and independent Latin America free from imperialism, with the US replacing the Spanish as the imperial masters. The creation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) as an alternative to the US led Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) can be seen within this political framework. What is less convincing in Chavez's introduction is an attempt to reinterpret Bolivar's ideas to fit within Chavez's political aims.
These include the notion that Bolivar wanted to create a multipolar global political system, something that wouldn't make sense in the already multipolar 19th century world inhabited by Bolivar which didn't resemble the world of today with the hegemonic domination of US imperialism. Another example is his pondering of the political direction of Bolivar in which he speculates that Bolivar himself was moving towards adopting socialist politics. This analysis seems more an attempt to fit Bolivar within Chavez's framework than an accurate assessment of his politics.
The letters and speeches of Simon Bolivar fit within the framework of 19th century Republican thought. At the time the world was grappling with the legacy of the French Revolution and the ascent of Napoleon as Emperor. Within this world Simon Bolivar was an important figure that aimed to transform the Spanish colonies of South America through a struggle for national liberation.
Not only was Bolivar a thinker who grappled with political philosophy stretching from antiquity to that of European republicanism, he was also a military leader who led his forces to victory against Spain and its allies. This rightly places him as a figure of inspiration in Latin America, as the continent finds itself in another struggle against US imperialism; a US imperialism which is also the legacy of Bolivar and his contemporaries' failure to create a united and independent Latin America.
This collection of texts shows a political leader that wanted to fight against the brutality, corruption and nepotism of the colonial world which favoured hereditary privilege over ability. He espoused many progressive policies from the emancipation of the slaves (initially on the condition that they would fight in his army) to an understanding that equality and justice are the basis of a political programme. He also stressed the importance of education and was well aware of the brutality and discrimination against the indigenous inhabitants.
However, his politics were also contradictory. Whilst seeing democracy as the ideal political system he thought that Latin America was not ready for even the limited democracy that could be found in Britain and the US at that time. He saw the democratic urgings of some within the liberation movement as a recipe for anarchy, chaos and eventual imperial subjugation. This is perhaps most clearly stated in his "Address to the Constituent Congress in Bolivia" where he stated his belief that the country needed to elect a president for life that would act as a benevolent insurer against the tyranny of democracy. It was these increasingly authoritarian politics and a growing suspicion of his ambitions, with some accusing him of wanting to set himself up as dictator, which would play a role in the eventual disunity of Latin America and the break up of Gran Columbia into modern day Columbia and Venezuela.
So whilst these important political documents provide a glimpse of the figure of Bolivar, a figure who is rightly seen as an inspiring figure within Latin America, they offer less in the way of a guidebook for the political struggles of today. What we are seeing in Latin America today, from Venezuela to Bolivia, is a wave of popular liberation struggles that aim to take political power from the traditional elite and put it into the hands of the people themselves. This movement needs to have confidence that it is the people themselves who have the power to reshape the world.
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